When Montana public-education leaders devised statewide tests and proficiency standards as required by a 2001 federal law, they set the bar high enough that student achievement would have to improve.
Over the past decade, Montana schools have improved outcomes on reading and math tests.
However, the federal No Child Left Behind law requires that 100 percent of students in all U.S. schools score at the proficient level in reading and math by 2014. That mandate applies to all students, including those with disabilities and those who were only in school for part of the academic year. If they are enrolled at test time, they will have to test and pass; otherwise the school fails.
Meanwhile, local schools that don’t meet the all 41 No Child Left Behind test requirements are subject to increasing sanctions. The federal law dictates that these schools spend more and more of their federal Title 1 allocation for staff development, transportation and private tutoring, leaving less money for classroom materials and actual teaching.
Last week, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau negotiated a waiver from some of those federal mandates. As a result, 155 Montana schools will operate another year with fewer federal mandates and without the label of failing to meet federal “adequate yearly progress.”
State education officials in Idaho, Utah, South Dakota and elsewhere also sought adjustments to the federal law this year.
In Montana’s case, the federal proficiency standards applied to the state’s “annual measurable objectives” were raised, but not as much as they would have been without the compromise.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is being criticized for these waivers and his announced plans to make more administrative changes in implementing the law. Duncan is acting because Congress has failed to do so.
Update past due
No Child Left Behind was due for congressional reauthorization four years ago. The education law is another big item on a long list of things our federal lawmakers have failed to act on in a timely manner.
It’s past time to update the law to reflect what has worked to improve educational attainment and what has failed to do anything besides burden local schools with more federal mandates.
So Duncan’s congressional critics have a solution: Update federal education law.
Both of Montana’s U.S. senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester, helped Juneau make the state’s case to Duncan. Their help is needed to get a better education law through Congress — a law that gives states more flexibility and less red tape to improve public education for all students.
The revision should focus on holding schools accountable for students’ academic growth. Instead of one all-important test, the law should promote teaching that prepares students to succeed in college and careers.
Juneau and other state chief education officers have collaborated on recommending common core standards for basic academic subjects. The Montana Board of Public Education is considering adopting these standards, which set expectations for what will be learned at each grade level and to assure that K-12 school teaching is aligned with post-secondary teaching.
Juneau also has upgraded data collection in the Office of Public Instruction
“Our ability to make data-driven decisions has increased,” Juneau told The Gazette last week. “We’re looking at classroom data, not just standardized tests.”
With school starting this week for many Montana students, parents are encouraged to learn about the tests their children will take. How well is the school measuring and documenting individual student progress?
That’s a question not answered by No Child Left Behind.